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Virginia’s senators criticize Amtrak’s ‘lack of communication’ after snowfall stranded passengers

In this image provided by WSET-TV, the Amtrak Crescent train No. 20 remained Jan. 4 in Lynchburg, Va., after inclement weather. (Madison Doner)
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Virginia’s two U.S. senators are calling for answers from Amtrak on its response to a snowfall that paralyzed rail traffic in the state earlier this week and left hundreds of passengers stranded in a train for more than a day.

Sens. Mark R. Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D) wrote in a letter to the passenger railroad that they found it “unacceptable that Amtrak did not better communicate with passengers during an emergency situation such as this” and said they will press the company to revise procedures and take steps to prevent communication failures from happening again.

About 220 passengers and six crew members became stranded Monday morning for more than 24 hours aboard the Crescent train traveling through central Virginia from New Orleans en route to New York. According to the letter, the train encountered downed power lines and trees outside Lynchburg and was forced to return to the Lynchburg station, where passengers said they weren’t told they would be staying overnight. Meanwhile, the train’s cafe ran out of food.

“Passengers on board described the lack of communication from Amtrak as a nightmare situation,” the senators said in the letter addressed to Amtrak chief executive Bill Flynn and president Stephen Gardner.

In a statement Friday evening, Amtrak said it works to provide customers with proper communication when service is disrupted, but didn’t live to those goals this week.

“Due to numerous downed trees and severe weather conditions, train operations across Virginia were dramatically impacted and we fell short in communicating the extent of these challenges to the customers that were impacted,” Amtrak said. “We are reviewing our response to ensure we can provide the level of communication our customers deserve and expect when we encounter significant disruptions.”

Winter storm leaves Amtrak passengers stuck on trains for days

Passengers aboard some Amtrak trains, including the Crescent, described chaotic scenes amid long delays. Some reported arguments breaking out in rail cars, parents begging for spare diapers and onboard cafes with no food. Amtrak said this week that passengers were delayed 27 hours, waiting out delays after a winter storm created a bottleneck for passenger trains headed up the East Coast.

The storm on Monday dropped about a foot of snow in parts of Virginia, downing trees and power lines onto tracks. It also snarled traffic on Interstate 95 for more than 36 hours.

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Kaine and Warner said they want to hold the railroad accountable.

“Inclement weather is uncontrollable,” they wrote. “However, Amtrak must have appropriate systems and practices in place to ensure that passengers and crew caught in such weather are not only safe, but also understand the situation and their options. We have long been supporters of Amtrak; but, simply put, Amtrak must do better.”